Ann Arbor, Mich. – Who needs football anyway?
ESPN recently tagged the UCSB men’s basketball team at #11 in its preseason national top 25 poll for mid-majors. Over the past several seasons, UCSB Head Coach Bob Williams has led the Gauchos to become the Big West power that once contended for NCAA’s Big Dance each year in the early ’90s. The talent of Santa Barbara athletics may be ready to shed the unwelcome tag of its mid-major status. Over the past few years, the Gauchos have posted one of the most premier women’s basketball, women’s volleyball, men’s volleyball and men’s soccer teams in the nation. The UCSB women’s soccer, cross country, men’s and women’s tennis, baseball and softball teams are arguably on the brink of such a perennially national level. But in a state dominated by a plethora of football-beefed Pac-10 Conference juggernauts who reap the benefits of private donors and wealthy alumni, can an athletic program ever attain national prominence without the x-factor: college football?
Athletic programs around the country are disproportionately judged not by just the success of their football program, but their mere existence. College football appeal, largely derived from media coverage, overwhelmingly trumps other sports due to the big money of football audiences, television ratings and bowl payouts. Viewer interest has historically corresponded with this trend and sporting networks fuel the fire with unlimited game coverage, highlights and analysis.
Yet above all, college football garners revenue. At the University of Michigan on Saturday, 111,347 turned out at the Big House, the largest college football stadium in the country, to watch the Wolverines trounce Purdue 31-3. That’s right, one tenth of a million people packed the stadium. A conservative estimate of $30 a ticket would translate to over $3 million in ticket sales for one home game, not to mention concession and apparel sales.
The numbers don’t tell the entire story, however.
Schools like Michigan are tied up in tradition and school spirit, but it’s those very characteristics that prevent the fans from stepping over the line of conservatism. Carrying on the tradition of years of athletic excellence, fans at these schools must maintain an image of decency.
Sitting in the student section, decked in Wolverine attire and chanting “Hail to the Victors,” I went to the Big House at Michigan Stadium ready to witness sports mayhem at its finest.
Unfortunately, I stumbled upon sports mayhem at its purest.
The chants of the student section resembled more like the cranky cackle of an elderly women at a retirement home than the insanity of a raucous frenzy of football supporters. Immediately behind me, amid the sea of maize and blue, stood four witty Purdue chumps with biting tongues as thick as their tan and black jackets.
“How am I the only fool in this stadium heckling these guys?” I thought. “You’re all swine.”
Then it dawned on me; we’re just different.
The athletic programs at Santa Barbara and those like Michigan represent two separate entities, unique in their respective rights.
For UCSB, it is the mentality of being a Gaucho that makes its fan base one of the most exciting bunch in the country. At Santa Barbara, the Thunderdome has a capacity of 6,000 but the energy that is emitted nearly rivals Cameron Indoor Stadium at Duke University. It is our perverted personalities, drunken tendencies and vulgar mannerisms that make the Thunderdome a place unlike any in the nation. It was enough for USC Head Coach Henry Bibby to refuse to home with Santa Barbara a year ago and renew the Trojans’ home. That, and the fact that he got crushed 69-53 in front of 4,500.
Just take our mascot for example. A healthy tune of “He likes to party… he likes, he likes to party” and the Fantom in on his way to pantsing referees, gyrating his pelvis and heckling opposing power forwards enough for them to give the crowd the bird.
Football would surely be nice, but other schools have put their name on the map without those steroid pumping jocks: Xavier University, Marquette University and Gonzaga University.
Go ahead, call Santa Barbara a mid-major. But I’m content cheering for the Gauchos with fans that have personality instead of those straight-edge stiff-necks who wave their Snoopy flags and wear their letterman jackets.